“Transformative” is the operative word for the board of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council these days, and president/CEO Michael E. “Mickey” Herbert is determined to give them what they want.
“I want to be clear that it’s not that there was enormous dissatisfaction with Paul,” Herbert said at the BRBC’s offices at 10 Middle St., referring to Paul Timpanelli, the man he replaced atop the organization in November. “But they still felt that there was room for significant change.”
Although Herbert wouldn’t say it, the fact that Timpanelli had led the BRBC for 28 years before retiring last year had led some in the Bridgeport business community to feel that the organization was growing stale. One of Herbert’s priorities is to build up the BRBC’s membership — it currently stands at about 750, which he said was “a couple of hundred less than what it was a few years ago” — and he’s been successful in enticing such Bridgeport players as developer Kuchma Corp. to return after several years’ absence.
“I’ve always felt it’s important for an organization to have leadership that’s on top of the most pressing issues it faces,” said developer Phil Kuchma, who had been a BRBC board member for a number of years and served as its chairman in 2000-2001. “But I’d lost a bit of enthusiasm over the past five or six years. I thought the leadership wasn’t as strong as it should be, and that the organization wasn’t as relevant as it could be.”
After dropping out for about three years, Kuchma said he was enticed back not so much by Herbert’s persuasive skills as by the mere fact that Herbert had taken over. “My mind was made up once he became the leader,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for him as an entrepreneur, as an executive at bigger companies. And I believe that he has the right viewpoint to make an organization like this one have the relevance and the impact on the community that it needs to have.”
Promoting the Business Council’s works more aggressively is definitely on the to-do list for Herbert. To that end he’s taken up an offer from University of Bridgeport Assistant Professor of Mass Communications Susan Katz to remake and revitalize the BRBC’s marketing materials, including its logo (“We’ve had the same one for as long as I can remember,” he said) and began penning a weekly e-blast, “Mickey’s Mail,” which is marked both by a sincere approach to today’s business challenges and by his plucky sense of humor.
“I try to share whatever wit and wisdom I’ve accumulated over the years,” he said.
It should be a pretty full trove: The 72-year-old’s past includes founding and leading for 22 years Physicians Health Services, a health plan serving Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, before moving on to become president, CEO and majority owner of the Bridgeport Bluefish baseball club, followed by nearly five years as president and CEO of ConnectiCare and as an executive vice president at the insurer’s corporate parent, EmblemHealth.
Herbert’s office is filled with dozens of the bobbleheads that he has collected over the years, many of them modeled after famed baseball players, reflective of his ongoing interest in the game. Though no longer officially tied to the Bluefish, he said he hoped the team and city can reach an accord to extend its lease beyond the current season – something that is still very much in doubt. The city has sent out an RFP for The Ballpark at Harbor Yard, which could result in another team coming in – or the space being used for something else entirely.
“I’ve pledged to [Bluefish owner] Frank Boulton to do what I can to get the team to stay beyond this year,” Herbert said. “The notion that [the space] could be something other than a ballpark doesn’t really compute.”
Herbert has been a BRBC mainstay throughout much of his career, serving on its board and executive committees for much of that time and serving as chairman for two years in the late 1990s. Still, he wasn’t necessarily ready to take the organization’s reins again when Timpanelli announced his intention to retire in 2015.
An exhaustive (and, to hear Herbert tell it, rather exhausting) months-long search for a replacement seemed to have ended last summer, only to hit an impasse when the BRBC and its preferred candidate couldn’t reach an agreement. Faced with the possibility of starting again from scratch — a proposition that he said sent “a palpable groan around the room” — Herbert later discussed presenting himself as a candidate to board member and CEO/president of Bridgeport-based Aquarion Water Co. Charles Firlotte.
End result: Unanimous board approval, and a starting date of Nov. 1.
Herbert’s first objective was to focus on what he identified as the group’s four core areas: economic development (jobs and growth), leadership development (workforce retention and development), government relations (advocacy for business-friendly legislation and access to political leaders), and the aforementioned increased visibility for the BRBC and its members.
On the first front, he points to Future Healthcare Systems, a new Bridgeport company developing a way of disposing of medical waste, and Corvus Capital Partners of White Plains, N.Y., which the BRBC helped to navigate what Herbert called “the bureaucratic, regulatory and compliance hurdles” involved in creating the Cherry Street Lofts redevelopment project in the city’s West End neighborhood.
Leadership development programs include Leadership Greater Bridgeport, the Women’s Leadership Council, and THRIVE Young Professionals, a business networking program organized by the Trumbull Chamber of Commerce for the under-40 crowd. (Other chamber members of the BRBC include Bridgeport’s and Stratford’s.) The hope is to ultimately bring those groups, and others now being developed, under the leadership of one person for the first time, later this year.
Political advocacy poses a more difficult hurdle. “We don’t have a lobbyist or a full-time person dedicated to that,” Herbert said. “But we have meetings with different commissioners at the state level, the governor comes in to speak with us, and we regularly host first selectmen and mayors.”
Herbert also is determined to make the BRBC’s boardroom and conference room more technologically up to date, both for internal communications and for when its member companies are looking to host meetings there. “Most corporate boardrooms already have things like Skype,” he said, adding that he expects to have such upgrades in place within a month.
There are a lot of balls in the air, and the fact that the BRBC has just seven full-time employees makes Herbert’s agenda even more impressively ambitious. “People are amazed at how many things we do with such a limited staff,” he said, “but I feel that by the end of my first year we should have accomplished a number of things, including improving our financial accounting and what we’ve already talked about.”
The septuagenarian’s plan is to stay on the job until at least the summer of 2018. “The perfect situation then would be for the board to come to me and say, ‘Can we convince you to stay on?’, rather than decide to hire somebody else,” he said. “But whenever I leave, I hope to be actively involved in recruiting my successor. I have a really good idea of the type of person who would be the right choice to lead us into the future.”